Lightening the load

If you went down to the gym today, or rather yesterday, then you may well have been able to confirm that elevated postures or body use really make work lighter.

Magnus and Alex (in this video on YouTube) were able to increase the number of repetitions by as much as 50% when working out, because standing or sitting correctly balanced (and without trying to ‘hold the body straight’) automatically organised the direction and containment of effort within their bodies, thus making them stronger.

The same ‘lightening effect’ can be acheived by anyone in any situation, not least in workplaces. The only problem is that people in workplaces (and gyms remember) are generally taught to sit, stand and move according to models for posture that lead to oppression and not elevation. We recognise the need to lighten the load, but unwittingly we apply theory that does the opposite. And when this doesn’t work, what do we do? We just try harder! 

Interestingly, in 2007 the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work  launched a campaign called “Lighten the Load”. According to the agency “Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common work-related problem in Europe – 25 % of the EU-27 workers report suffering from backache and 23 % complain about muscular pains.”

 I contacted the Agency’s representatives here in Stockholm at The Swedish Work Environment Authority and arranged a meeting. I was curious to see how they would react to my claim that the things being taught about posture and body use were contributing to the onset of MSDs such as backache.

I met two physiotherapists and one behavioral scientist and demonstrated the difference between oppressed and elevated postures – something that was obviously completely new to each of them – and then showed them that the way people are taught to sit and stand (plumb line aligned, etc) corresponded to the oppressed postures they had just tried. They were perplexed, but added that there really was nothing they could say or do about this because they are not allowed to make recomendations regarding specific ergonomic methods.

The fact that currently accepted models for good posture, safe lifting, and so on could possibly weaken the body and increase the strain on the lower back and other joints seemed to be something never before considered, until recently it seems. Researchers have at last concluded that there is a difference in the way the body is loaded when running with shoes as compared to running barefoot (read article and watch video here). While barefoot runners land on the balls of the feet first, shod runners land on the heels. “Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing,” which helps to lessen the impact by “decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land.” If you watch the video then the difference is immediately apparent.

From a Power Ergonomics perspective the difference is also very clear – barefoot runners run elevated (light and held up) while shod runners tend to run oppressed (heavy).  The other day I had the opportunity to confirm this once again while I observed around 80 people in an aerobics class at our local Friskis & Svettis in Stockholm. When they all ran around the room, I found it impossible to pick out anyone who was running lightly. Everyone seemed to be plodding around.

While exercise is obviously good for us, there is a real difference between exercising elevated and exercising oppressed. If we truly want to lighten the load – as the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work  wish us to - then we must first conceptualise the two fundamentally opposite ways in which the body is balanced and held (elevated vs oppressed). Without this we are like drivers who do not notice that the hand brake is on while we are driving.

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